Unconscious Bias & Leadership

Written by on March 24, 2017

Unconscious bias…and the effect it has on teams and organizations…is one of the most serious leadership challenges today. There are lots of reasons for this, but let’s start with the most obvious one; that any business risk that is not conscious or immediately understood is daunting. Let’s start by getting on the same page with a definition:

“Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside of their own conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing people”.

Once we understand what it is, we begin to realize that the organizational risks that come with unconscious biases are serious. Almost everything can be affected; hiring, meetings, teamwork, culture, performance reviews, innovation, promotions, consensus-building, and much more. The easiest way to see unconscious bias is to look for its effects and outcomes.

Unconscious Bias Affects Team Performance & Profitability 

Progressive leaders have many admirable and important reasons to work on limiting the effect of unconscious bias in their organizations. One of the best reasons is performance. Studies have shown again and again that diverse companies perform better. One of the most concise and compelling reports was produced by the CEB Corporate Leadership Council. It was their Global Labor Market Survey… and the results were conclusive.

Here’s a summary:  

When employees view their workplaces as diverse and inclusive, the organization’s profits exceed their non-diverse competitors.

Here are the numbers: 

1.12x More Discretionary Effort
1.19x Greater Intent to Stay with Organization
1.57x More Collaboration Among Teams
1.42x Greater Team Commitment

The bottom line in this report, and others like it, is that diversity is a performance accelerant…and unconscious bias is diversity’s most powerful enemy.

So how does unconscious bias affect things at work? It shows up in many ways and invisibly drives a lot of outcomes. The influence of unconscious bias shows up in very predictable ways that leaders can learn to identify quickly. Let’s review the five kinds of unconscious biases that show up in organizations most often:

Affinity Bias – Tendency to warm up to people who are like ourselves

Halo Effect – Tendency to think everything about a person is good because you like them

Perception Bias -Tendency to form stereotypes and assumptions about certain groups

Confirmation Bias – Tendency for people to seek information that confirms their preexisting beliefs

Groupthink – Occurs when people try too hard to fit into a particular group by mimicking others or holding back their real thoughts and opinions

In our experience, once a certain kind of unconscious bias has a name, it’s a lot easier to address. Every form of unconscious bias creates risk for a team. Progressive leaders need to understand these risks.

Where does unconscious bias come from? 

The root of unconscious bias is our survival instinct. Our brains evolved to help us survive. Our ability to subconsciously process thousands of pieces of information in an instant kept our ancestors from becoming food. This same ability now gets us through the day without having to slowly process every decision we need to make.

The numbers from the experts make this very clear: We all receive 11 million bits of information every moment, and we’re only able to process about 40 bits. So our conscious mind is processing only a minute fraction of what our unconscious mind is processing. So our unconscious mind is making 99.999996% of all of our decisions. That’s a lot.

Everyone has biases; it’s part of being human. It’s important to not be ashamed of this basic fact. Part of developing yourself as a leader is learning to respond to unconscious bias. We all have to accept this truth before we can begin to take positive action: You are biased. So am I. It matters.

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